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(photo credit: AP [file])
The government's decision on Friday to approve a major ground incursion into the Gaza Strip came as diplomatic efforts aimed at putting together a cease-fire that would end the rocket fire on Israel and arms smuggling into Gaza failed to come to fruition.
Intensive diplomatic efforts led by US President George W. Bush and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Egypt did not succeed in putting a proposal on the table that Israel was satisfied with.
The cabinet on Sunday was expected to hear both security and diplomatic briefings regarding Operation Cast Lead, as Saturday night's ground incursion dramatically overshadowed the diplomatic efforts, that had focused on putting some kind of international monitoring mechanism into Gaza after the fighting stops.
The cabinet meeting was held at the Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv, to enable the defense establishment's top brass, which is directing the campaign, to brief the ministers.
Prior to the ground incursion, senior diplomatic officials were reacting positively to the idea of reincorporating the Gaza Strip into the Palestinian Authority, with Fatah, along with some kind of international mechanism, in charge of the border crossings.
The Prime Minister's Office, meanwhile, issued a statement Saturday night saying the objective of the ground operation was to take control of the areas inside the Gaza Strip from where rockets are being launched on Israel.
The security cabinet, in a secret meeting Friday afternoon just before Shabbat, approved the ground operation, leaving the timing of the operation to the discretion of the IDF. Ten of the ministers in the security cabinet approved the ground operation, while Vice Premier Haim Ramon and Shas head Eli Yishai abstained, reportedly because the goals of the operation were not defined as toppling Hamas.
The security cabinet approved Operation Cast Lead some two weeks ago, but asked to be reconvened when the decision was made to move ground troops into the Gaza Strip.
The ministers also gave Defense Minister Ehud Barak a green light for a massive call-up of reservists, a number that could reach "tens of thousands." This was done, according to the statement, to be prepared for further stages of the operation, and to be prepared on other fronts.
According to the statement, the goal of the operation is to deal a "hard blow to Hamas's terrorist infrastructure and a change of the security situation for the citizens of the South for a long period."
One senior official said that the operation would continue "until the civilian population in southern Israel no longer has to be on the receiving end of incoming rockets. If that can be achieved tomorrow, the operation can end tomorrow."
Barak briefed President Shimon Peres, opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik and Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi on the developments.
He also met Saturday afternoon with former defense ministers Moshe Arens, Yitzhak Mordechai and Amir Peretz.
The ground operation came even as the idea of some kind of international monitoring mechanism gained diplomatic steam over the weekend. Israeli diplomatic officials, however, said that this idea would rise or fall depending on the parameters of the mechanism.
"We have no interest in an EUBAM force that is going to check passports at the Rafah crossing," one senior diplomatic official said in reference to the EU monitors with limited authority who were stationed at the Rafah crossing between December 2005 to June 2007.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said in a Channel 2 interview Saturday before the troops went into Gaza that "in the few months of calm, they [Hamas] increased their rocket range, so one of the main things now is to stop the smuggling for a long period of time.
"I hope the results of this operation will bring about quiet in the long term," Livni said. "The moment they fire, we will respond with great force."
Livni spoke by phone Saturday night with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and said that Israel would ensure humanitarian aid gets into Gaza.
She is scheduled to meet representatives of humanitarian organizations providing that aid on Sunday.
The monitoring mechanism is expected to be one of the key topics of discussion when a high-level EU delegation begins a trip to the region Sunday, and when French President Nicolas Sarkozy comes to Israel Monday to meet with Olmert.
Bush referred in general to the monitoring mechanism during his radio address on Saturday.
"The United States is leading diplomatic efforts to achieve a meaningful cease-fire that is fully respected," he said. "Another one-way cease-fire that leads to rocket attacks on Israel is not acceptable. And promises from Hamas will not suffice - there must be monitoring mechanisms in place to help ensure that smuggling of weapons to terrorist groups in Gaza comes to an end."
Robert Serry, the UN's special Mideast envoy, said at a press conference Friday the diplomatic efforts under way involved many players, including the United States, the European Union, the Arab League and Turkey, adding that the roles of the Quartet and the Security Council would be very important.
A Security Council debate on the crisis was reportedly scheduled to be held overnight Saturday Israel time.
Serry said that while an immediate cessation of hostilities was "absolutely vital," new conditions must be created on the ground to prevent a repeat of the conflict, and a return to the status quo ante would not be enough.
After a cease-fire, further arrangements must be found to solidify it. He said that this would include bringing Gaza "back into the fold of the Palestinian Authority," and added that the international community must now be prepared to put structures on the ground to make that happen.
He said the PA must be a part of the solution at the border crossings, including Rafah, if they are to reopened.
Serry said it was not clear whether Hamas would be willing to accept the terms of an internationally brokered cease-fire, but that if Hamas was interested in the well-being of the Palestinians, "they would be looking for a way out of the very deep crisis."
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana will be coming to the region Sunday as part of a delegation headed by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country has just taken over the rotating presidency of the EU. The delegation will also include the European Commissioner in charge of External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
The delegation will go to Egypt on Sunday, and will arrive in Israel Monday for meetings in Jerusalem with Israel's leaders, and in Ramallah for meetings with the heads of the Palestinian Authority.